KYLE MOONEY AS JAMES IN BRIGSBY BEAR. PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS.
There is a certain magic to Brigsby Bear, the first movie from co-writers Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello, directed by their childhood friend Dave McCary. Much of this comes from the protagonist, James (Mooney), a sheltered 25-year-old consumed by an obscure children’s television show, the titular Brigsby Bear. But it is compounded by the characters who fill out James’ life—played by the likes of Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Jane Adams, Kate Lyn Sheil, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., and Ryan Simpkins—and their acceptance, or journey to acceptance, of James’ enthusiasm. “It’s a sweet movie,” explains Mooney when we sit down with him the week of the film’s release in New York, following a long festival run from Sundance to Cannes. “That’s the takeaway for a lot of people. A lot of people seem to be surprised about that in a positive way,” he continues. “I like the idea that potentially people would walk away feeling good.”
Now 32, Mooney studied film at USC and began his career as an improv and sketch comedian. In 2013, he joined Saturday Night Live, and Brigsby is produced by fellow SNL alums the Lonely Island. “Over time, many of my [comedy] characters have become more subtle versions of myself, but also of people in the peripheries of my life,” Mooney tells us. “When I was younger, it was more outlandish characters and cartoonish persons—not necessarily pulling from who I was. I discovered that, for me personally, the stuff that makes what I do unique is that I’m taking from the nuances people don’t always realize about themselves.”
EMMA BROWN: I read that Brigsby Bear began because you wanted to do something about a children’s television show that only one person had seen.
KYLE MOONEY: That was the seed of the idea. I don’t really know why I was so intrigued by it or where it came from, maybe because I’m kind of an obsessive person about TV shows. When I was a kid I was really into the shows my older brothers were into. I got all the action figures handed down to me, but I couldn’t go to the store to buy new ones because they were discontinued, they didn’t exist anymore. But when the internet came, when I was in the fifth or sixth grade, all of a sudden you could pull up a clip from an opening theme song to a show that hadn’t aired in years. In those early days of America Online, I was definitely trying to connect on some level with people who were into similar things.
BROWN: Could you talk to your brothers about these shows or had they outgrown them by the time you got interested?
MOONEY: They encouraged it, but they’d also outgrown it. I was, to a degree, left to discover stuff on my own. We had VHS tapes that they would tape off the TV of He-Man or Transformers. I would watch them over and over and obsess over them. Not just the shows, but the commercial for breakfast cereal or whatever it was. Now we all have an appreciation for these things and it’s a constant text and email chain: “Remember this thing from our childhood?”
BROWN: There are quite a few Brigsby Bear episodes referenced in the film—how many episodes did you plan out? How in depth did you get into the history and mythology of Brigsby?
MOONEY: Kevin Costello co-wrote the movie with me and he knows that stuff better than me. In the movie there’s a line about how many episodes there are. We created—he more than myself—a kind of bible for what the show is or would be. When it started it was very rudimentary. Ted, who creates it, is figuring out what the story is and the technology to produce the show. Over time it gets more elaborate and the story deepens—there are more characters introduced—until it’s a pretty highly produced show for one man to be doing. There is obviously a lot to explore in terms of the episodes that we may never get to unless, perchance, this movie becomes popular enough to warrant a Brigsby Bear TV series where we get to delve into that.
BROWN: Would you want to do that?
MOONEY: Someday maybe. It’s somewhat of an abstract thing, because it would be a TV show that’s produced for a person that’s not necessarily the audience watching it.
BROWN: When did you come up with the character of James?
MOONEY: We—Dave, the director, and myself—had been making internet videos for a while and this idea was swimming around in my brain. I don’t know if it was a general creative impulse, but I just started writing down what I figured the story of this movie would be. With that, I wrote down the name James and wrote down the name Brigsby Bear. These were truly first draft ideas. I pitched it to our friend Kevin who had a history of writing screenplays and he helped me get it into proper format and structure it and turn a seed idea into an actual feature. Throughout that process of writing with Kevin, I was working on SNL in New York. I would go back to L.A. and pitch the film, and that’s kind of where the character developed. The character on screen is not incredibly far off from the way we would riff at Kevin’s house coming up with the movie.
BROWN: Were the other characters more difficult to create?
MOONEY: Certainly there was a learning curve to that. It’s much easier for me to write for myself. In terms of sketch comedy, where I come from, there’s usually the weird funny character and then everybody else just plays straight to that person. That was somewhat of a challenge, but a positive one, just to bring these characters to life and make them dynamic as well. It’s something that excites me about whatever the next movie is—you get to speak in 10 different voices and have to go outside of yourself and think, “How would this person react to this situation?” or “What are this person’s goals?” I think that maybe the best example of that in the movie is Greg Kinnear’s character, Vogel. Initially he was just a detective helping out James and then through the help of others pitching ideas, we came up with this throughline of him giving up his dream of wanting to be a creative person.
BROWN: The film has such a good cast.
MOONEY: We were lucky because we had producers [like the Lonely Island and Lord and Miller] on board and there’s a connection to Saturday Night Live between [the director] Dave [McCary] and I. I generally think that most people came on board because it was a somewhat unique concept and they may tend to get scripts that are somewhat formulaic. I feel so fortunate about the cast; everyone is so good in it. It’s a difficult thing to cast an indie movie, and sometimes there’s a compromise of needing a certain name for a certain role. We made a point that we wanted the best person for every role. It just so happens that some of them are high-profile names.
BROWN: Mark Hamill in particular is a great fit.
MOONEY: I’m kind of surprised the idea didn’t come to us sooner. We really struggled to cast that role. We knew we needed somebody who would be able to do voices and Mark is a prolific voice actor. He also had this quality that we were searching for—he’s someone that you don’t get to see in a role like this all the time. What I love especially is that the movie deals with fandom and nostalgia, and who better to represent that than Luke Skywalker.
BRIGSBY BEAR IS OUT NOW IN SELECT THEATERS.